Thursday, May 30, 2013

Annual Perennials

Every annual is a perennial somewhere.  The trick is we don’t live in the ideal temperate climates needed for many of these tropical beauties. 

Some folks have them as houseplants, a few have greenhouses and most shun them like the idea of burning dollar bills for fireworks. 

I’m not very good at taking care of houseplants, my overwintering is certainly survival of the most stubborn and even if I had a greenhouse, I’d probably forget to shut the door one day in January. 

I’ve developed a new attitude about tropical plants and especially foliage.  If it costs the same as some other annuals such as geraniums and Boston ferns, then why not spend the same amount on these really dramatic and often huge foliage plants?

Some of my favorites are Angels Trumpet (and it does bloom gloriously), elephant ears, banana, canna, coleus, many grasses (especially loving King Tut and that cute little fiber optic), and there are some really large succulents.

If you’re determined to overwinter, pot them and use an appliance cart to wheel them indoors before frost. 

Large plants such as these really do make a dramatic statement in the garden.  An elephant ear along side a pond will get about four feet tall and look for all the world like you’ve entered the tropics. 

Annual grasses planted directly in the ground will double (or more) the size you typically see in pots.  They love the freedom and nutrients in the soil. 

These dramatic foliages (even those that have blooms) can fill in a gap caused by something that has died or a grouping that hasn’t matured. 

Even sweet potato vines planted directly into the soil will form a beautiful mat around your daylilies or other perennials. 

It’s an opportunity to introduce vibrant colors.  I have a beautiful banana plant in shades of deep burgundy on shiny emerald green.  The chartreuse sweet potato vine brightens a patch of ground and forms a beautiful background for bright pinks.

Here in the Midwest we seldom have perennials with large leaves.  Using these annuals allows for that contrast.

Large succulents can be pretty expensive especially if you consider throwing them away each winter.  If you’re planning a rock garden or other landscape where these would be especially stunning, consider planting them in clay pots and then sinking the pots in the ground.  In the fall, you simply lift and store.  If you’re not able or don’t desire to manhandle large pots, consider planting a fairy garden of annual succulents in a shallow bowl.

About the only gray/silver foliage plants must be annuals.  We normally see them only in pots, but I’ve had excellent results when used for borders, accents, and foundation plants.  Dusty Miller is the most common but there are many others – some creepy other worldly fun. 

Caster Bean plants are another huge and beautiful plant.  The only note on this one is the seeds are poisonous and must be removed or kept away from children and animals.

Begonias, Euphorbia and dahlias are beautiful flowering plants and folks normally don’t think about their foliage.  Both have beautiful leaves and some can get 3 – 4 foot tall.

I recommend planting different varieties of lettuce and other greens throughout your garden.  It looks great and always good to have a handful ready for a nice salad or BLT. 

And last, are the fall ornamental cabbages.  If you plant them in the spring, make sure to plant other annuals around them as they may loose some of the outside leaves.

We may not live in the tropics but we can certainly take advantage of these tropical beauties - for a season at least.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bzzzzzzzz ing along

I've nagged, talked, written and gone on about bees.  Their importance, their needs and gardeners' responsibilities.  Imagine my interest when I was working out by our woods and I heard this really loud buzzing.  I mean really loud buzzing.

My husband had mentioned he'd been hearing buzzing lately while working out by his shed.  I called him to help me investigate.

As we walked along one of the paths in the woods, the buzzing got louder.  Finally, we looked up and saw the sky was full of swarming bees.  Since it was so high up, I'm not sure what kind.

After awhile, the swarm moved on to another tree and eventually moved out of the woods.

I speculated they were perhaps "nesting" in one of the old dead trees.  Or, they were from an area bee hive and out for a nectar gathering frolic in the blooming wild cherry trees.  Whatever the scenario it was pretty amazing.  Hope they stay healthy and plentiful.

Feel free to double click on the pictures to get a better sense of their frolicking.  Certainly not the best photos although I asked them to pose, they were too beezy :-)  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Oh Where Oh Where

Oh where?  Oh where has my expensive iris gone?  Oh where oh where can they be?

To me, Iris are the Midwest's version of an orchid.  Except larger and not the same family and strictly speaking nothing alike except B E A U T Y in an almost similar form.   But I digress. . .

I was into a hybrid iris buying frenzy back in 2009.  I'd had success with buying locally and with the iris others had given to me.  I knew how and where to plant them.  They were long-lived and hardy.  The world was Irisie good.

And then, little by little they simple didn't come up or a few leaves and then nothing.

Hybrid iris from the famous retailers aren't cheap and as I lost more and more, I swore off ever purchasing another iris.  Apparently, they aren't my thing.  I continue to love the hardy old favorites but gone are the blue, white, multi strange and lovely colors.  Gone are the fragrant and re bloomers.  Gone is the absolutely novel red.  Gone? GONE! G O N E!   I'm taking a little break now to snivel.

Back from sniveling - I'm having the most unusual and lovely spring 2013:

My "lost" and "gone forever" irises are coming up this year and blooming as if nothing had happened.

I've speculated the reasons:  (1)  Last year's drought.  (2)  This year's wet spring.  (3)  I was a good girl.  (4)  Mother Nature took pity upon me.  And the most likely (5) I'll never know.

"Pink Horizon"

"Lacy Snowflake"
I'll post more as they bloom since I have iris coming up in a couple in spots I didn't even have an iris plant documented.  It's like an Agatha Christie mystery and so much fun!  Here are four beauties back for a curtain call.

"Best Bet"

"Chasing Rainbows"

Friday, May 24, 2013

So, You Want Butterflies?

I hear people say, “I want butterflies, but, they never come to my yard.”  A garden needs plants for ALL the phases of a butterfly’s life. When I ask if they kill caterpillars, they invariably say, “Only the ones that are eating my plants.” 

Gardening is a little give and take adventure and it also applies to enticing butterflies to your gardens. 

Here are the rules:

·      Caterpillars are a necessary portion of a butterfly’s life cycle.

·      You cannot use insecticide and have butterflies.  They are very sensitive to chemicals; sensitive as in “dead.”

·      They will eat on their favorite host plant at that particular point in their life cycle.  Plant enough for you and your beautiful friends.  Seldom does it kill a plant.

·      The more flowers you have during the entire blooming season, the more butterflies you will have. 

Giant Swallowtail
Butterflies do not plan their lives around your viewing or picture taking.  They plan their lives around food, water, shelter and procreation. 

·      They need a source for water, mud or wet sand.

·      They need protection from high winds and a place to bed down.

Illinois has 62 different butterflies.  Some are dramatic and others aren’t.    This doesn’t include moths.  Most of us can’t provide and sustain every variety in our gardens.  Most of us can’t even identify them all because of the subtle differences or rarity.  Following are a few of the more obvious because of their beauty.

Eastern Black 
Black Swallowtail:  The caterpillar eats the leaves of host plants in the parsley family (including Queen Anne’s lace, carrot, celery and dill.)   The adult butterfly sips nectar from flowers including red clover, milkweed and thistles.

Red Admiral
Admiral:  The caterpillar eats leaves from many species of trees and shrubs including wild cherry, aspen, poplar, cottonwood, oaks, hawthorn, deerberry, birch, willows, basswood and shadbush.   The adult butterfly eats flowing sap, rotting fruit, carrion, dung and occasionally nectar from white flowers including spirea, privet and viburnum.  White admirals also sip aphid honeydew.

Emperor:  The caterpillar eats leaves from various hackberries, sugarberry and elms.  The adult butterfly sips sap, rotting fruit, dung and carrion.  They can also be seen sipping moisture at wet spots along roads and streams.

Monarch and Queen:  The caterpillar eats the host plants of several kinds of milkweed.  Adult butterflies sip the nectar from all milkweeds.  Early in the season before milkweeds bloom, they visit dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana and thistles.  In the fall they will be seen sipping nectar from goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed and tickseed sunflowers. 

One thing you may notice about this list is the host plants for the different stages of butterflies are often plants we think of as weeds or nuisances.  Some caterpillars eat garden plants, especially herbs. 

So, here’s the deal:  Failing to provide for the eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, and adult butterflies means they will pass by your yard.  Use of pesticides to kill caterpillars will not only keep them from your yard but it will contribute to their diminished population in general.

Mourning Cloak
A good book to help identify butterflies is the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies”.  There are now several on-line sites to help identify butterflies and guides for planting specifically for butterflies.  (   One site tracks the migration patterns each year. 

So much of the butterfly’s life cycle we can’t control because of weather, migration and conditions in other regions of the world.  You can develop the right habitat in your yard.  Be patient, it may take a few years for them to notice you’ve put out the welcome sign.

March On!

Is it the time of life or is it time marching on?  It seems one species of flowers comes and goes in a week's time.  It's far too soon to have soaked up all the beauty of the moment.  The good news is I have a succession of plants that provide flowers almost continually.

I truly feel bad when a beautiful flowering plant has finally given up it's last bloom for the season.  But, as I mournfully glance back another flower has opened and my mood turns to excitement.

How do you manage to have something beautiful blooming continually you ask?  Not by reading catalogs, not by what's blooming at the nursery - it's by observing what's blooming in your neck of the woods.

On your way to the grocery, do you always notice the home with apple trees blooming.  As you pick up the kids from school, does that lilac on Main Street always bring an "OOOooo" to your lips?  As you are encased in your air conditioning in August, do you marvel at the purple roadside asters?  These are the indications of what make up a landscape for all seasons.

We often see plants advertised as "blooms until frost" and a few perennials actually do, although not as stunning as the first bonanza.

Having continuous blooms will entail using blooming trees and bushes.  I try to have perennials blooming all year but in some cases only an annual can fill in the gap.   Spend a year writing down what flowering plants you love and come next year, you'll have a list of plants that will insure a beautiful yard from spring through fall.

Right now it's pretty dizzy around here with everything that's blooming.  LOVIN' it!!    

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Peony for Your Thoughts

Soon, very soon, one of the most beautiful garden plants will start blooming and hold on to your garden hat because it’s a thrill you don’t want to miss!

Peony plants either elicit a cry of “love-love-love” or “hate-hate-hate”. I’m totally into the love category for the beauty, fragrance and ease to own.

Few of us haven’t had exposure to grandma’s garden peony and seldom does a peony lover resist the urge to take an offered start. For most of us the peony is so old and been around so long, we’ve no idea the variety’s name. But, OH we do know the fragrance.

The peony requires full sun in the Midwest, fertile soil and good drainage. They don’t like their roots to compete with trees and bushes. These are the main reasons you see a line of peonies situated out in middle of a yard. Once established, they don’t need extra watering because too much water will cause their roots to rot.

To plant a peony, dig an 18 inch hole and then backfill until the top is a few inches below the ground. Water and let it drain. Place the peony on the backfill and make sure you don’t cover more deeply than 1-2 inches below the soil line. Planting too deep will result in rotting, no blooms, or no plant.

Dividing an old peony plant is not for the faint of heart or weak of body. The root system can be massive in weight. Either dig the entire plant (if moving) or take a pie wedge slice if dividing. Throw away any damaged roots. Gently pull away pieces to get a section(s) with 3-5 eyes. Eyes are the little pointed parts where the plant will sprout come spring. To get a whole section of a plant, you must dig down at least the entire shovel length otherwise you’re cutting off a portion of the root. The little points must be facing up.

Planting a potted peony from the nursery is done the same way except don’t remove the soil surrounding the plant. Place the entire soil ball in the ground making sure it’s buried no deeper than the top of the potted soil.

Plant new potted peony plants in the spring and divided old plants in the fall. Peonies planted in the spring tend to stress from the summer heat and don’t do as well. If you want to keep the peonies from flopping (caused by heavy blooms and rain), put a peony hoop or stakes on them as they break ground. Peonies do not like other perennials closer than a foot nor mulch touching their stems. Keep weeds from them because it makes them unhappy to compete. Little divas!

All those rules being said, they may still do wonderfully in an old abandon farm site with little care on what’s perfect.

It takes several years for a newly planted peony to bloom. It is called “pouting” because they don’t like to be moved and they are going to make you pay by not blooming until they get used to the new site. Once established, they can live decades.

Cut off dead blooms (if you haven’t brought every single one into the house) to let the plant put its energy into the roots and not into making seeds; unless, you want to try growing new plants from seed. Cut back entire plant once it wilts in the fall or early in the spring prior to new growth. Don’t pull dead growth as it may pull the entire root from the ground.

Tree peonies look like (wait for it) a small tree. The stem stays all winter, the leaves and flowers returning to the top each spring. Intersectional peonies look like a tree except the entire plant dies back in the winter and reissues a stem/trunk each spring. Herbaceous peonies are the plants grandma had in her garden.

Lore: The ants on your peony buds are not needed for the flower to open. I know grandma said it and it is easy to see why that lore was started. What the ants are doing is dining on the sweet nectar. Dip your flowers gently in a bucket of water for a few seconds; gently shake off the water with the ants before taking into your house. The ant issue is another reason plants are often situated away from the foundation of homes.

There are many old peonies; most historical and a few rare. Some of the really old ones have simply died out prior to anyone taking notice. A few are native to the Western US. I urge you to not destroy old peony bushes. If you are of the “hate-hate-hate” club, give them away. Tell your local garden club, city garden volunteers, neighbors and friends. Someone will most certainly consider it a valuable gift.

For those of us who always want to know “the rest of the story”: The peony is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Asclepius became jealous of his pupil; Zeus saved Paeon from the wrath of Asclepius by turning him into the peony flower. 262 compounds have been used from peonies for things ranging from medicines to flavoring.

Historical, they are known as the “King of Flowers” in Asian culture. Wood nymphs are said to hide in the petals and it is a common subject for tattoos because mythological Asian warrior-heroes had these tats.

As for we mere mortals, the delicate petal colors of white, red, pink, apricot and yellow along with the heady fragrance is all it takes to love this plant.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Creating a Mood

Tree shaped by the great 
Mississippi River
No one can do fog like a Brit.  No one can do a snow storm like the Grand Tetons.  No one can capture expanse like Oklahoma.  I’m talking about the ability to see the subtle and grandeur of a scene.  And then, to relish and enjoy the conflicting moods of the landscape.

If you’ve traveled to the UK, you have no doubt witnessed fog.  It rains and rains and often the aftermath is this thick soupy fog where only impressions of things swirl through daily life.  We often forget, while admiring the beautiful cottage or castle gardens of Europe, the very beauty comes from the many days of rain and gloom. 

Some of the most beautiful photographs of a path through a forest are those having the stark contrasts
Daylily Country Fair Winds 
popping out of the shadows
between light and shadow.  It adds depth and mystery.  It also allows the woodland plants to thrive in dappled or full shade.  Without this, the woodland orchid could not survive.

All photographers know they must either take photographs in the early morning or late afternoon because the bright full noonday sun removes the nuances necessary for a perfect picture.  A full day of nothing but sunlight would not only burn up a photo, it also burns many a perfect flower.

Without the once-a-year rainfall in certain deserts, some cacti would never bloom.  It depends on this rare downpour to bloom and to seed. 

Smokey Mountains - Colorado
While driving or hiking the mountains of this or other countries, huge snowstorms can make it difficult if not truly dangerous.  Without these storms, the spring melt would not feed our streams and regenerate the earth.

Fires can kill acres of forest and brush; at times homes, wildlife and human life included.  As we mourn those losses, the earth regenerates in ways we never suspect.  New life sprouts from ashes on the forest floor; long dormant seeds sprout from prairielands.

Our own gardens and yards are a constant mystery of change and layers of subtle colors.  On days when some complain it’s dreary, others see layers of gray and browns in a photograph of sepia. 

Foggy on Route 78
While rainwater in our basements or first floor homes is a mess no one voluntarily wants, this spring’s flooding is replenishing our water table relieving the drought that could have brought farming production to its knees.

For those that follow and engage in the doomsday climate change predictions, this deluge of rain does much for staving off the diminishing water table.  Streams and rivers are flowing again; albeit at flood level.

While it will be difficult for someone to embrace this if their house has just been washed away in the great Mississippi, Illinois or Rock River flooding, the power of the waters does clean as it powers down toward the ocean.

Flooding on the Illinois River 2013
These weather conditions or events must be a part of our lives to replenish and renew.  Where humans have settled, their spaces can often be interrupted by the series of events necessary to complete nature’s business.

We can see these weather events as an intrusion upon our lives or rejoice in the layers of beauty they create.  As a gardener, fighting these events is a sure way to take a pleasant hobby and add to the stresses of everyday life.  Design your gardens and yard to take advantage of the events.  Do as nature does and replenish when something is destroyed.

And most of all, take photographs of these less than perfect days.  The full sun of perfect days simply doesn’t have the character and beauty.  As you pour out your frustration when nature picks on your personal comfort by raining and throwing clouds upon your parade or proving once again you aren’t the center of this universe – dance a little happy step and realize you are witnessing the subtle and beautiful shades of nature’s perfection.